“Anna Karenina” is acclaimed director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, stirringly adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s great novel by Academy Award winner Tom Stoppard. The film, which opens in theaters on November 16th, marks the third collaboration of the director with Academy Award-nominated actress Keira Knightley and Academy Award-nominated producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, and Paul Webster, following their award-winning box office successes “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement.”
At the Los Angeles press day for the film, Wright talked about how he unveiled his vision for the film to Keira, how his creative relationship with her has evolved over the course of the pictures they’ve done together, how he collaborated with his longstanding creative team to create the film’s innovative visual style, how his upbringing and experience in puppet theater contributed to the film’s aesthetic, why Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson were his first choice for the roles of Karenin and Vronsky, and why he decided he’d only direct “Anna Karenina” if Tom Stoppard did the adaptation.
Question: You have managed to take and find the lyricism of Tolstoy and along with Tom Stoppard capture that on screen in large part due to your setting in an opera house and the scenic choreography. What led you to that brilliant concept?
Joe Wright: I’ve been wanting for some time to find a way of stylizing cinema and trying to get closer to the emotional story I was telling and get rid of all the bumph that goes with it and allow the audience a more participatory experience. It was an attempt to do all of those things and to express the idea that all these people were just performing roles in their lives. It’s no coincidence that the first time you see Keira, she is getting dressed like an actress putting on a costume, and she goes out into the world, or into her family home, and tries to play a role that she’s no longer suited to. So I guess all of those ideas were coming into play.
Q: When you settled on your stylistic choice, you had to break that to Keira. Can you talk about how you unveiled that?
Wright: I told her, and the first thing she said was, “Oh fuck!” Serious language. And then, she pretty quickly understood. I mean, Keira has been doing quite a lot of theater recently and had an understanding of what I was suggesting doing is done all the time in theater. It’s just not very often done in film. So, she got it. Also, I think it made it more challenging. Keira and I both work best from a place of being the underdog. We like to feel like we’ve got something to fight.
Q: With the stage, scale is so much more restricted. Did you find yourself having to omit anything or did you reallocate and focus on that?
Wright: No, the idea was to take Tom’s (Stoppard) screenplay as it was written and find solutions, find ways of expressing exactly what he’d written, but within that limited environment. I find often that limitations liberate you creatively. So, suddenly with Karenin tearing up the letter and the letter becoming snow, you can’t do that in naturalism. But somehow you could express his heartbreak far more potently in that kind of limited environment.
Q: Can you talk about the casting of Jude Law and Aaron Taylor-Johnson and were they your first choice?
Wright: They were, yes. Obviously, you have to think about okay, now I’ve got Keira and how do I balance these two men against her. Firstly, Karenin needs to be someone that one can imagine Keira marrying when she was 18. She didn’t marry him for his money. She married him because he seemed like a good match. And so, he had to have something appealing about him, and he had to seem like the kind of character that everyone else would have thought she should marry. I wanted someone who was both appealing and yet shut off. Jude and I chose to play that role quite sympathetically. There were no goodies or baddies in Tolstoy’s book. There are just flawed individuals. I think Jude works. Jude somehow is kind of a bit like a great character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. He relishes that stuff, and so often, he’s just asked to be handsome and charming and dashing. I think there’s a lot more to Jude than just handsome, charming and dashing.
Q: You left that to Aaron?
Wright: (laughs) I left that to Aaron, exactly. Vronsky is about the only character in the book, one of the only lead characters in the book, whose age isn’t described. Anna is 28 and Karenin is 12 years older, but Vronsky is just described as being a boy soldier. It was like detective work. I had to figure out what Tolstoy thought Vronsky was. And, the way in which Vronsky falls in love seems to me to be very kind of young, puppyish love. I remember when I was about 18 or 19, I saw a girl in a shop. I thought she was the love of my life, so I went and bought flowers for her and presented her with these flowers, and she was like, “What a freak!” But, it’s that kind of love so it seemed appropriate that he should be around 21 or so. It’s this kind of ridiculous passion. Also, as things start to unravel in the latter part of the film, Vronsky is way out of his depth. He just doesn’t know how to handle her hormones, her paranoia, her fears, and I think that that’s important as well. I’ve also been there myself. He just doesn’t know what’s going on. And yet, also, he does love her, and I think Aaron is able to appear as this terribly arrogant, self-important young man at the beginning, who we think is probably a bit of a cad, and actually by the end, I hope, we realize that he does love her and he is loyal to her. He’s just way out of his depth.
Q: Can you talk about how you created the look of the film and collaborated with your creative team?
Wright: What’s lovely now is that Sarah Greenwood, my production designer, and Katie Spencer, the set decorator, and I have worked together for 15 years. I’ve never shot anything without them. And I’ve worked with Jacqueline Curran, my costume designer, now for 8 years, and Seamus McGarvey (Director of Photograph) also for a long time. So, we have a kind of strange telepathy that goes on whereby our aesthetic is so the same that I can’t remember what is Sarah’s idea and she can’t remember what is my idea, and so we very much move as a single unit and think as a single unit. We disagree sometimes and then we have arguments, like a family. The aesthetic of this film is probably closest to my upbringing than any other. I was brought up in a puppet theater in London. My dad made the puppets and my mum made the sets and the costumes, and so, it all had a very handmade, homemade feeling about it. And so, there’s probably an element of that, and that’s what I wanted to recreate with this film. We also looked at the animation of Jan Svankmajer, a Czech animator. Somehow his aesthetic had found objects and had an influence on how we did it. We also talked about Powell and Pressburger movies (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger) and the kind of vivid, almost Technicolor feeling to those. We used 10 denier ladies stockings over the back of the lenses so that they create this soft, blooming atmosphere. We all kind of [contributed]. It’s difficult to say who does what.
Q: When did you decide that Tom Stoppard needed to be the one to write the adaptation?
Wright: At the very beginning. I said I wanted to make “Anna Karenina,” but was terrified of it. I said, “If Tom Stoppard writes it, I’ll do it,” fully thinking that he wouldn’t agree because he hasn’t made a film for ten years. So, I thought, “Well, that’s alright. Then I can get away with that.” He turned around and said, “Yes,” and so I was committed.
Q: Keira plays a mother very well, but she’s not a mother in real life. How did you direct her to play the role and did you discuss it beforehand?
Wright: I’d just become a father when we shot the film, and so I was able to tell her about the full catalogue of horrors. (laughs) We talked a lot about parenthood. We talked in particular about the birth of Seryozha, her son in the film, and what that might have been like, and possibly the idea that Anna had suffered from some sort of post-natal depression and that that experience had rocked her hormones quite a lot. We talked a lot about all of those things, but most importantly, as a mother, she brought a kind of friendship to that relationship and I thought that was really important.
Q: How has your working relationship with Keira evolved over the course of the pictures you’ve done together?
Wright: We challenge each other more now than we did when we were making “Pride & Prejudice.” She was only 18 when we made “Pride.” And so, I think we push each other further. We understand what each other’s limitations are or capabilities are and can be stretched, so I’ve watched her turn from great ingénue to great actress, and it’s been an amazing privilege. Between “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina,” I think she went through a tough time and she backed off cinema and worked in the theater for some time, and that has developed her as a performer a great deal. In this film, we worked far more on the physical representation of the character and there was a lot of movement work in rehearsals which we hadn’t done before. So, we’re always testing and pushing each other.